Americans head in a hole when it comes to their health, study finds

Despite the popularity of today's reality TV shows, the reality of their own health and fitness eludes most Americans. According to a study by a health plan provider that provides incentives for healthy lifestyles, Americans simply don't get it, even with the barrage of information from the media and the onslaught of headlines about obesity.
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Despite the popularity of today's reality TV shows, the reality of their own health and fitness eludes most Americans. According to a study by a health plan provider that provides incentives for healthy lifestyles, Americans simply don't get it, even with the barrage of information from the media and the onslaught of headlines about obesity.

"More than anything, the study shows the need for a new definition for the word, 'healthy.' It proves that Americans tend to see themselves as 'well' until they are actively 'sick,'" Charles Schutz, chief medical officer for health plan provider Destiny Health, said in a report. "Their definition of healthy is 'I feel fine.' That is a dangerous notion that needs to be replaced by the understanding that a person is healthy only when he or she is living a healthy lifestyle and is regularly monitoring key risk factors, such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels."

As an example of this knowledge gap, Schutz noted that in the independently conducted nationwide survey of 1,004 adults, an unrealistic 67 percent -- two in three -- categorized themselves as being "physically active" and only 30 percent -- less than a third -- perceived themselves as being overweight. Shultz added that these statistics are a complete reversal of the well-publicized and well-documented Department of Health and Human Services numbers.

Ken Germano, president of ACE, told SNEWS® that an education gap may not be the real problem.

"I don't think it is so much that people aren't educated on what health and fitness is," he said. "It is more that they don't care. There is a real apathy when it comes to the need to be active and eat well."

The Destiny Health (www.destinyhealth.com) study backs up Germano's assertion there is clearly a disconnect on the nutrition side of the equation as well.

In fact, 88 percent of those surveyed said they believed their health could be improved by eating healthy foods. Yet 43 percent of survey respondents acknowledged dining on fast food one or more times per week and almost 90 percent of those said they eat processed snack foods regularly.

"You can't separate nutrition from activity when talking about health," Germano said. "You have to talk about them together or else you are losing the fight."

Schultz said that this education will only take hold when Americans -- whom he said have the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the world -- "stop pretending things aren't so bad." That is one of the first steps to improving overall health. He described the survey's results as "disturbing and illuminating news" that dramatize the urgent need for increased education on health and healthcare-cost related subjects.

"Radical dieting and lifestyle change is not the answer," Schutz said. "We know from decades of watching our waistlines grow and our health decline that fad diets and sporadic exercise is not going to solve our problems."

Destiny Health's other suggestions, with comments from Schutz, include:

  • Commit to small change. "Radical dieting and lifestyle change is not the answer. We know from decades of watching our waistlines grow and our health decline that fad diets and sporadic exercise is not going to solve our problems."
  • Move more. "Simply chose to make yourself move a little more frequently every day. The extra time spent moving around will add up quickly."
  • Make it fresh. "Bypass fast foods and processed foods as much as you can. Downsize instead of super-size! You'll feel so much better and will have more energy when your body is burning cleaner food fuel."

Germano said that Destiny's plan and these tips are steps in the right direction, but it is up to more health care providers to take the mantle and work with the fitness industry.

"It is really up to the stakeholders -- the insurance companies and the doctors -- to bring programs like Destiny's to more people," he said. "The insurance companies need to subsidize physical activity and create the opportunity for better premiums for those that are physically active. And doctors need to prescribe a healthy lifestyle as quickly s they do a pill."

Destiny, which with its consumer-driven plans that reward good health with lower premiums, of course has a stake in this news. But it also has put its money where its mouth is. The survey found that nearly three in four respondents (74 percent) said they might adopt better habits if only their health plan acknowledged the behavior with lower premiums, while half they would do the same if rewarded with travel and consumer goods awards.

Destiny's Schultz believes that programs like those it provides as well as better education are crucial for the health of the nation.

"Our survey shows that Americans need to become better educated on health issues and more aware of the things they can do on their own to improve their health," Schutz said. "With the health of the nation at stake, there can be no more important cause."

SNEWS® View: It's great to see the debate about the education of Americans on health and fitness continuing -- No, wait, it's not, not really. Heck, we should know this already. The debate over how to decrease increasing waistlines should be resolved. Now it should be just about implementation. While it is nice to see health plans such as Destiny promote preventive activity and nutrition as a way to improve the nation's health and hand out incentives to participants (and we applaud the company for what it's doing), it is time that the fitness industry take on part of that leadership in this battle and promote more than pieces of equipment but rather the need for fitness and its reward of better health. That promotion can and should include consumers, but also insurance and health providers and the government. The SGMA's lobbying and advocacy event, Fly-In for Fitness, on Sept. 20-21 (www.sgma.com/flyin) is one way to get involved, but there are many others that can come from within a company. Sure, some of the industry's organizations have tried their best (often independently), but it is time for everyone (associations, manufacturers, retailers, health club owners and more) to step up to the plate together, pool their money and energy, and help shake people off the couch and into the gym, the park, the trails, and the fitness store. It has worked for milk, meat, raisins and even pork -- Why not health?

Ed Note: Destiny Health with 50,000 members enrolled in the United States, has modeled its strategy after its parent company, Discovery, an international life and health insurance company based in South Africa that has more than 1.6 million members since 1992. In the United States, the Destiny Plan is marketed in Illinois, Virginia, the District of Columbia and Maryland, and available in Massachusetts through a partnership with Tufts Health Plans and in Wisconsin through affiliated insurance brokers.

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